It seems to me that harsh critical reviews of books, poems, music, film, and television are on the decline. Maybe I’m looking in all the wrong places, and I have no evidence to back this claim up other than an Emily Nussbaum interview on Fresh Air where she voices something similar. These negative reviews are not extinct—the Jeremy Larsen review of Greta Van Fleet’s 2018 album Anthem of the Peaceful Army made a splash last year with its searing put-downs and one-liners. But on the whole, overtly negative reviews that drag a particular piece through mud are rare, at least in my estimation. Why?
I’m thinking about this lately because I feel a bit torn. On one hand, critique has the task of highlighting and celebrating worthwhile art and, well, not doing that for art not worth our time and energy, or art that actually throws something caustic or poisonous into our cultural space. Critique matters because it sharpens our sense of beauty. On the other hand, reviews that pan an artist or their work are obviously laced with subjectivity, and more often than not critics are in the midst of power struggles within their industry. They can also be quite elitist and move (consciously or not) certain voices that need to be amplified to the margins.
My struggle with criticism plays out on the non-professional level, too. When people complain about a TV show or film or book they didn’t like, I’m predisposed to playing the devil’s advocate, even if I agree with their critiques. I’m naturally conflict avoidant, so these conversations never become confrontational, but I am sometimes frustrated by the posture people take on when they dislike something. My bias factors into my reaction of course; I may have enjoyed the thing they’re critiquing, and I do throw shade on certain works of art or pop culture I don’t appreciate. What bothers me most, then, isn’t that someone doesn’t like something, but the way some folks (including myself at times) go about their dislike.
So: how can we offer critique, both professionally and not, without a patronizing or condescending tone? How can we offer critique through a more charitable lens? How can we dislike or even disapprove of something while remaining humble?
In the same interview with Fresh Air, Nussbaum says she stopped reviewing poetry because her negative reviews dissuaded people from exploring a poem or book of poems they should pick up and read anyway. As an art form that is not widely read, poetry needs all the inhabitants it can find. This doesn’t hold true for other, more popular forms like TV or film, but there’s something in Nussbaum’s thoughtfulness. What are our critiques, spoken or written, putting into the world? Are they silencing voices or empowering elitism? Are they squashing enthusiasm for good and valid art forms? Are they destroying lives or careers?
Here’s where I’m at: critique is not dead and should never die, so long as it challenges and does not humiliate. So long as it drives artists toward some kind of light instead of darkness. So long as it highlights beauty without standardizing pretension.
Brad Zwiers (’12) graduated from Calvin College in 2012 and Western Theological Seminary in 2015. He will not be graduating from any more schools. He often stares at books he wishes he could read but knows he will not finish and goes for long walks with his wife, Gwyn. Sometimes he plays basketball and always he follows the greatest sporting club in the world, Liverpool F.C.